‘She was very complicated. She was a conundrum’: who was the real Lucille Ball?

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She was precise complicated, she was precise loving and she was precise mercurial. She was precise generous but she came from the Depression and she was precise guarded astir money. She was a conundrum. She was a paradox of things. But she made maine consciousness similar I was the lone idiosyncratic successful the room, adjacent successful a crowd, and she made maine consciousness authentic.

Lee Tannen, writer and playwright, is successful afloat travel arsenic helium reminisces astir his aggravated decade-long relationship with Lucille Ball, erstwhile the funniest and astir celebrated pistillate successful America. Her 1950s sitcom, I Love Lucy, pulled successful 60m viewers and became portion of the country’s taste DNA.

Thirty-two years aft her death, the fable is astir to beryllium burnished by Being the Ricardos, a biographical play starring Nicole Kidman arsenic Ball and Javier Bardem arsenic Desi Arnaz, her hubby some successful existent beingness and connected screen. It explores the couple’s idiosyncratic narration – they divorced aft 19 years but are said to person remained soulmates – and a nonrecreational situation successful which their careers were astir derailed by the “red scare” successful Hollywood.

This section of Ball’s vocation is truthful small known that writer and manager Aaron Sorkin was unaware of it erstwhile helium took connected the project.

She was 24 when, successful 1936, she registered to ballot arsenic a subordinate of the Communist enactment to delight her cherished grandfather (her begetter had died of typhoid fever erstwhile she was three). She thought small much of it, oregon astir authorities astatine all, but was hauled earlier the US House of Representatives’ Un-American Activities Committee successful 1953.

When influential columnist and broadcaster Walter Winchell broke the news, and newspapers followed up, Ball seemed doomed to the destiny arsenic different Hollywood stars and screenwriters blacklisted by the communist witch hunt. She braced herself for booing from the workplace assemblage astatine the adjacent signaling of I Love Lucy.

But earlier she walked connected set, Arnaz warmed up the assemblage by quipping: “And now. I privation you to conscionable my favourite woman – my favourite redhead – successful fact, that’s the lone happening reddish astir her, and adjacent that’s not legitimate.” (Ball had gone from brunette to blonde to red.)

Arnaz had saved the day. The assemblage cheered. And the firm powers down I Love Lucy declined to termination the goose that laid the aureate egg.

Speaking by telephone from Stuyvesant, New York, Tannen says: “Lucy was the astir apolitical idiosyncratic I cognize but it was a large woody and the lone crushed wherefore her vocation was not ruined was due to the fact that she was truthful beloved and Desi helped her done that point. There were radical that committed termination implicit this. This was a horrible, horrible, horrible clip successful America’s history.”

Ball had a erstwhile vocation successful Hollywood, making 75 films implicit 18 years astatine astir each large studio. She joined Arnaz, a Cuban-born instrumentalist and histrion who became a naturalised US citizen, successful 1940. A decennary aboriginal they went connected a vaudeville tour, formed their ain accumulation company, Desilu (which produced Mission: Impossible and Star Trek), and conjured up the era-defining I Love Lucy.

Ball played Lucy Ricardo, a zany housewife with large dreams, portion Arnaz (the archetypal idiosyncratic to telephone her “Lucy” alternatively than “Lucille”) took the relation of Ricky Ricardo, a Cuban-American bandleader. The amusement gained a immense nationalist assemblage that would present beryllium unthinkable successful the fragmented epoch of streaming and continues to person a devoted worldwide following.

Tannen reflects:It’s timeless. It’s endless. It skirts parody. It skirts politics, it skirts racism. It skirts everything. It’s conscionable damn funny. The writers were successful their 20s – they were kids – and they knew however to constitute and it was a caller mean and we laughter astatine it today. Funny is funny. Lucy ever said, you don’t chopped funny, and she’s right. It’s conscionable funny.

Ball and Arnaz had 2 children, Lucie and Desi Jr, but could not clasp the household together. They divorced successful 1960 aft she could nary longer carnivore his alcoholism and extramarital affairs. Tannen continues:To me, the much palmy they became, the much unsuccessful they became, meaning professionally and personally.

Nicole Kidman successful  Being the Ricardos
Nicole Kidman successful Being the Ricardos Photograph: Entertainment Pictures/Alamy

“She told maine that she ne'er would person near him if they weren’t truthful celebrated and truthful successful the nationalist eye. The looks that she got from each the radical successful Hollywood and the women who were her friends who helium fucked: she couldn’t instrumentality it anymore. It was truly the womanising and the drinking and helium couldn’t woody with the success.

Ball took implicit arsenic caput of Desilu Productions, becoming the archetypal pistillate to pb a large studio. She joined stand-up comic Gary Morton successful 1961 and remained his woman until her decease from an aneurysm successful 1989. But Tannen, a distant narration of Morton, is convinced that Arnaz was the large emotion of her life.

“Oh, not adjacent close,” helium says.I accidental successful my publication that the time Desi died was the time she started dying. It was specified a emotion matter that unquestionably she loved him until the time she died. And I judge helium loved her.”

Tannen archetypal met Ball concisely erstwhile helium was precise young, past again successful 1980 erstwhile they deed it disconnected and became inseparable. “It was this benignant of kismet relationship. She became similar a surrogate parent and I became similar a surrogate lad due to the fact that you don’t person each that baggage – though we had baggage.

“I was astir apt with her much than her children successful those years, 1980 to 1989. It’s a precise bittersweet past decade, a fewer triumphs, a batch of disappointments and heartache. She died excessively young arsenic acold arsenic I’m acrophobic and I inactive miss her each day.”

Tannen turned his decennary with Ball into memoir, I Loved Lucy, which helium adapted into a play of the aforesaid sanction and which, helium hopes, mightiness yet go a film. He indulged her emotion of backgammon, travelled with her and was successful the assemblage erstwhile she received a Kennedy Center Honor successful 1986 – 5 days aft Arnaz’s death.

“That was my archetypal decennary of coming retired arsenic a cheery antheral and she was coming into the past decennary of her life, not that she knew it astatine the time,” helium says tenderly. “I was unsure astir my sexuality and she was unsure astir a batch of things and truthful we benignant of saved each other.

“I told her astir being cheery earlier I told my parents and I was truthful tense astir telling her and she was like, ‘What the hell? Why the hellhole didn’t you archer maine successful the archetypal spot that you’re gay?’ She was astir cheery men her full life. So I loved however authentic she was with maine and however authentic I was with her. That connection keeps connected cropping up.”

Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz successful  I Love Lucy.
Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz successful I Love Lucy. Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy

In a caller interview successful the Hollywood Reporter, Sorkin was forced to support his casting of Kidman and Bardem and raised eyebrows among Ball devotees by asserting: “It’s not a amusement that if we took a caller look astatine today, we’d deliberation was funny.” Being the Ricardos is apt to rise the question: has I Love Lucy stood the trial of time?

Kathleen Brady, who interviewed Ball erstwhile she was 74 and wrote a biography, Lucille: The Life of Lucille Ball, says: “The amusement is inactive portion of American culture. I conscionable immoderate radical who are blase and they are doctors and they are lawyers and erstwhile they perceive that I met Lucille Ball, they get truthful excited. I deliberation the information that amusement gives america truthful overmuch joyousness means that yes, it is inactive relevant.”

Brady, whose latest publication is Francis and Clare: The Struggles of the Saints of Assisi, adds: “She seems to beryllium an oppressed housewife but this is astir the conflict against power, which is simply a classical comic device, and it is astir upending power, which, Lord knows, she was capable to do.

“Before she would spell connected to thrust the New York City subways and get a loving cupful stuck connected her head, she would vacuum the house, she would marque definite small Ricky was taken attraction of – she was a truly bully housewife. I accidental if 1 wanted to beryllium precise serious, 1 could spot Lucy Ricardo arsenic a tragic fig but cipher wants to beryllium superior erstwhile they are dealing with I Love Lucy due to the fact that they’re conscionable laughing excessively hard.”

A caller procreation of Ball fans includes Carrie Cooke Ketterman, a 35-year-old vocalist and writer who lives successful Corydon, Indiana, who started watching I Love Lucy astatine her grandmother’s location erstwhile she was 5 oregon six.

“I was being nosy 1 time and I was going done her VHS tapes and I was like, ‘What is this I Love Lucy?’ and I popped a portion successful and I was hooked,” she recalls. “I thought she was truthful funny. I conjecture it was mostly her expressions that drew maine successful and these zany situations that she would get herself pulled into. I became a lifelong instrumentality aft that.”

Ketterman, a earthy redhead, and her hubby Jeff play Ball and Arnaz successful a tribute show, touring festivals astir the country. She adds: “Theirs was a precise unsocial relationship. You tin spot successful the photos and immoderate of the location videos and what you’ve work astir them, they genuinely loved each other.

“Of people it wasn’t cleanable by immoderate means. They some were truthful passionate and originative it’s mean for them to butt heads. They were nether truthful overmuch accent to support Lucy going, particularly erstwhile they saw what they had.

“But I deliberation that emotion was real. It was ever there, adjacent if it wasn’t ever the champion astatine times. They were meant to beryllium unneurotic and, arsenic overmuch arsenic you privation that blessed Hollywood ending – they stayed unneurotic everlastingly and ever, the extremity – existent beingness doesn’t enactment similar that sometimes.”

  • Being the Ricardos is successful cinemas connected 10 December and Amazon Prime connected 21 December